Data overload

Matt Polaine, principal consultant in circular economy at Resource Futures, says we must look past the excess of information competing for our individual and collective attention to visualise new ways of solving global problems – and take inspiration from visionaries of the past.

I will spend more than a hundred days online this year, or about forty percent of my waking life. While we may be ever more connected, with more information at our fingertips than ever before in human history, I feel there is a price paid for this: we are drowning.

Our psychological, industrial and financial systems are constantly working at maximum and the moment we back off we suffer Fear Of Missing Out or a downward shift in that most creaking of performance metrics, GDP.

Unable to properly process the constant tidal waves of data we can lose empathy, are less trusting and more cynical. We can become fearful and protectionist. The situation is not sustainable, and we drown because we do not know which way is up.

Sometimes it takes a severe shock to remind us of what ‘sustainable’ really means, and why we should be measuring and nurturing it.

When I discuss the application of the circular economy with an audience the term ‘sustainable’ invariably comes up. I posit, “If I describe my marriage as ‘sustainable’ would you imagine a symbiotic relationship? Is this a target we should be aiming for, or the absolute bare minimum?”

Emotional scar

A view of the old pier at Veines & Kongsfjorden, Northern Norway.

In August 2018, as the Innovation Manager for the British Antarctic Survey, I visited the most northern permanent settlement on the planet, Ny-Ålesund on the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway. The impacts of climate change on the glaciers feeding into the bay of Kongsfjorden leave an emotional scar. Forty percent of the Spitzbergen ice has disappeared since 1920.

In the Antarctic the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier is currently the focus of a major international scientific campaign, as from the 1990s to 2010 it lost about 54 Gigatonnes of ice per year. Being about the size of England, we should be very concerned about its future impact on us.

The vastness of these glacial retreats is beyond normal comprehension, and what happens in the polar regions does not stay in the polar regions. Experiencing such events puts new meaning on ‘sustainable’ and ‘fiddling at the edges’.

As species-defining as climate change is, it is a slow threat and humanity is very poor at responding to threats that are less than immediate. The modelling is there, the trajectories holding true and yet we broadly continue with incremental Business As Usual, which in any other domain would be seen as collective denial.

COVID-19 could be the severe shock our species needs. It has highlighted current political, economic and environmental weaknesses. Systems running at full steam into the buffers. It has also shown incredible values in the social dimension, and how society can decide to trample across silos, ditch dogma and do The Right Thing. COVID-19 has shown us what is possible when facing an immediate threat.

Doughnut economics

With a career in industrial design spanning almost two decades, I have a few icons I keep coming back to when looking for inspiration when situations are tough, and it seems I am not alone with one idol in particular – Buckminster Fuller. Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, shares a similar admiration.

Buckminster Fuller was a renowned 20th century inventor and visionary born in 1895. Dedicating his life to making the world work for all of humanity, Fuller operated as a practical philosopher who demonstrated his ideas as inventions that he called ‘artifacts’.

Fuller did not limit himself to one field but worked as a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’ to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty.

While his most well-known artifact, the geodesic dome, has been produced over 300,000 times worldwide, Fuller’s true impact on the world today can be found in his continued influence upon generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working towards ‘consumption’ within our biosphere’s limits.

In Raworth’s book she highlights a Fuller phrase that in my view sums up our current opportunity post COVID-19, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”.

COVID-19 has been catastrophic, but it has also illustrated artifacts we can change. Take time if you can and register the cultural junk competing for your attention and the impact this may be having on your ability to focus.

Industrial designers like me might not be illustrious writers, maybe because we illustrate with images instead. Both Fuller and Raworth understand the power of pictures and the dominant role of visualisation in human cognition. Half the nerve fibres in our brains are linked to our vision and when our eyes are open, vision accounts for two-thirds of the electrical activity.

When seeking circular economy clarity and ease of understanding, I often draw pictures, not dig into data on spreadsheets. We need the data of course, but first we need shared understanding. No medium comes close to the power of a good image or diagram, and we have an excellent diagram in Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, where she proposes to make our existing economic models obsolete.

COVID-19 has been catastrophic, but it has also illustrated artifacts we can change. Take time if you can and register the cultural junk competing for your attention and the impact this may be having on your ability to focus.

Outside of our areas of expertise most other domains have no idea what circular economy or doughnut economics is. Instead of sending them a web link or a poorly executed elevator pitch why not draw them a picture? It is likely they will take it with them, doodle their context into it, and pass it on.

In the noise of data overload and disruption of a pandemic we all need to consider building new ways of working that make the existing ones obsolete, and certainly more than just sustainable.

I hope you get the picture.

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